The founders of Ampler don’t want you to think of electric bicycles as special. "We are making bicycles," says co-founder Ardo Kaurit with a pause. "We’re building 21st century bicycles that combine a really good bike with modern technology to make them even better." The implication is that a day will come when most commuter bicycles are equipped with electric motors, in the same way that all phones are quickly becoming smartphones. And you know what? After riding a preproduction Ampler, I hope he’s right.
The Ampler Hawk e-bike I’ve been riding for the past two days is no ordinary two-wheeler. At least not in 2016. I’m guessing most of you have never ridden a pedal-assist bicycle like the Hawk or the VanMoof Electrified S that I rode last month. The experience is, indeed, special. It’s like being twice as powerful at just the push of a button. Mind you, these electric bikes aren’t glorified mopeds. The motor on an Ampler or VanMoof only assists you when pedaling, sensing your desire to accelerate or climb and then kicking in smoothly to give you a silent push.
Ampler was co-founded by Ardo Kaurit, Hannes Laar, and Rait Udumäe in Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia. Kaurit and Udumäe grew up in the same Estonian village where they were drawn into a culture of kids that rode and wrenched on old Soviet-era Riga mopeds that were notoriously prone to breakdowns. Kaurit, like his father, was a professional motocross rider. He met Laar, a lifelong bicyclist and BMX racer, at school when they were just 16. The three bonded through their love of all things on two wheels and would each go on to study engineering at college.
They’ve been building bikes for two and a half years. First, by pooling their savings, and then by raising about $100,000 in December 2015 through a local crowdfunding site to build the first Ampler prototypes. They’re now on Indiegogo — not because they need money to finish their prototypes (they’re done), but because Indiegogo provides the six-person company with a global storefront to gauge interest for their first production run. So far Ampler has secured over $40,000, which translates into 23 bikes that Kaurit, Udumäe, and Laar must build themselves in Estonia for delivery in August (Laar and Kaurit assured me this date would be met).
Ampler has two bikes on Indiegogo: the classically styled nine-speed Bilberry and the aggressively styled single-speed Hawk. A third bike, the ultra-swank Pennon, is also coming with bamboo fenders, a Gates belt drive, and a leather seat and grips. Ampler tells me they’ll be offering accessories like front and rear carriers that will be compatible across all their bikes in August. Kaurit and Laar believe in their product so much that they drove 22 hours across six countries to hand-deliver me a Hawk to test from my home in Amsterdam. And I must say, I’m very impressed by what the exuberant team has created.
The build quality on the Hawk prototype I rode was as impeccable as the ride. Performance can be tuned obsessively via the Ampler app, which paired quickly with my Hawk over Bluetooth. The app isn’t required to use the bike but I found it to be very useful as a dashboard (distance to empty, battery temperature, voltage, speed, estimated time of arrival, etc.) with my phone attached to the handlebar on a third-party mount. The app also includes turn-by-turn guidance and a mode that records ride data directly onto a map for later analysis. It also gives you quick one-touch access to your personalized riding modes: mine came predefined with a "normal mode," maxing out at 25 kph with the motor set to 250 watts and a 100 percent assist which effectively doubles the power of my pushes against the pedal; and "boost mode" with a max speed of 35 kph at 350 watts and a 125 percent assist. Each value can be tweaked to create your own perfect balance of power and range. I spent most of my time in boost mode, grinning from ear to ear.
The Ampler Hawk also features an on / off button next to the magnetic charging port on the frame near the pedal. The button glows green or red or some color in between to show battery level (mine was yellow after testing). With the motor turned off it can be a bit tough to get the bike off the starting line, as you’d expect from a one-speed bicycle weighing 31 pounds. But it’s certainly manageable should the battery ever die.
I rode the e-bike about 18 kilometers, mostly in boost mode — because why the hell not — and the battery was still at 64 percent with an estimated 38.4 kilometers remaining before empty, according to the app. Ampler estimates a 70 kilometer average range in regular pedal-assist riding or 40 kilometers with the power dialed up, so the estimate sounds about right. (Ampler bikes do not charge via regenerative braking.) During my testing I wheeled the Hawk into Amsterdam Central Station, threw it over a shoulder to carry it up and down six flights of stairs, took it on a train, rode on cobblestoned paths next to tulip fields, bombed down hills along coastal dunes, and climbed steep asphalt inclines rising from the sea. I even rode it on the beach at low tide just to prove that I could. The Hawk performed flawlessly at every turn. I blasted up hills a speeds that would normally leave me breathless, and raged against stiff North Sea winds at top speed while barely breaking a sweat. Climbing back onto my regular bike after returning the Hawk felt like stepping into a time machine set to the wrong direction.
If I have any gripes, and I must, it’s this one very small thing: every time I started the Ampler app the bike turned on. I’ve been assured that it won’t drain the battery in any meaningful way (and it’ll shut off on its own), but it still fills me with range anxiety — albeit misplaced, since unlike a Tesla, I can always pedal home even after the battery exhausts itself. Still, sometimes I just want to open the app to study my ride statistics or map out my route ahead of time without the bike turning on. It’s something I might disable if given the option in the app. Or maybe not — I haven’t had enough time with the bike to know how I’d use it day to day. (Did I mention that this is a very small gripe?)
The Ampler Hawk prototype I rode is the real deal. Now the company has to prove that it can build and deliver the same quality ride to backers, and do it in a timely manner. Indiegogo prices start at $1,690 for the Bilberry and $1,890 for the single-speed Hawk. The Pennon starts at $2,990. Those prices aren’t cheap, but you get the same terrific pedal-assist riding experience as a VanMoof Electrified S. And in the case of the Hawk, you get it for less money ($2,490 list price vs. $3,000) and less weight (31 pounds vs. 40 pounds). And it’s less than half the price of the unproven Zeitgeist.
Bottom line: if you’re looking for a pedal-assist electric commuter bike, then Ampler should definitely be on your short list.